Before McEnroe’s meltdowns, Rodman’s gowns or Tiger’s windshield, there was the temper of Heleno de Freitas. The Brazilian soccer icon of the Forties was a licentious playboy, shameless self-promoter, and absolutely brilliant on the pitch. That brilliance, however, was quickly superseded by an arrogance that led Heleno to continually refuse treatment for a nasty case of syphilis. The disease wormed its way through the superstar’s body, eventually forcing him to retire to a sick house, and suddenly the once-immortal Heleno de Freitas was dead at 39 with no World Cup appearances and the bittersweet nickname “Prince Cursed.”
Jose Henrique Fonseca’s biographical account of Heleno’s life darts across South American time and space, from reaping in the women and wealth that came from Heleno’s heroic one-man performances on the pitch to his last days spent as a syphilitic mute in a sanatorium. The remaining bits of Heleno would like to be somewhere between Blow and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, contrasting Heleno’s raging tantrums and insatiable need for women and cars with what is supposed to pass for introspection. Walter Navaho’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (a bold though ultimately correct decision over the Brazilian palette of the garish and radiant) desperately searches for meaning in leading man Rodrigo Santoro’s jawline as Heleno embraces and eventually succumbs to stardom. To his credit, Santoro does an admirable job of vacillating between charisma and chaos, a heartbreaking performance that ends up carrying the film.
Noticeably absent from the script is soccer of any kind. The few moments spent on the field forsake the game for Heleno’s notorious temper, as he continually ignores and berates his teammates and friends in an endless pursuit of fame. As one reviewer has pointed out, Heleno is “kind of an asshole.” Indeed. There is little to like about the star athlete besides his effortless ability to bed beautiful Brazilian women (Aline Moraes as the unfortunate wife and Angie Cepeda as a lounge singer who will never see a ring) and his Gonzo-like inhalation of ether and alcohol. He has none of Ali’s charisma, Jordan’s killer instinct, or Ruth’s swagger. This is due in part to the fact that we are never let inside, never allowed to understand the source of Heleno’s demons and why they make him lash out at everything that comes within striking distance. The tortured decadence that should have us dripping with envy comes off as a stale rehash of Raging Bull, complete with a concrete wall for Heleno to punch.
There is another Brazilian soccer player by the name of Pelé mentioned and forgotten near the beginning of the film. Heleno dismisses him as a young upstart and continues drinking. From that moment on, the beautiful game—and the country where it's played best—takes a backseat to the man himself. Two hours later, all I know is that he had it coming.